Van Denburgh takes skills to NBA All-Star game

Watching everything that encompasses the NBA All-Star Weekend in person is something special.

Nick Van Denburgh of Oak Grove took that a step further as a participant in the annual gathering of the top basketball players in the world in Houston, Texas, last weekend.

Nick Van Denburgh, right, pauses for a photo with Lynx all-star Candice Wiggins. Submitted photo

Nick Van Denburgh, right, pauses for a photo with Lynx all-star Candice Wiggins. Submitted photo

Van Denburgh, who was named Special Olympics Minnesota Male Athlete of the Year in 2011, took part in various events which culminated by playing in the NBA-Special Olympics Unified Sports basketball game on the same Toyota Center floor hours before the NBA All-Star game.

Van Denburgh was part of the champion West team (55-54) and scored the final four points for the team that included six Special Olympians from Texas, China and Italy. Also part of squad were NBA greats Dikembe Mutombo and Detlef Schrempf, WNBA great Ruth Riley and Van Denburgh’s personal highlight, Minnesota Lynx All-Star Candice Wiggins.

“Playing side-by-side with her was the best memory for me if I had just one. It was really fun and when I first told her I was from Minnesota she gave me a big-time, huge hug,” Van Denburgh said.

On the court he found her on a basket for an assist.

Van Denburgh, right, goes one-on-one during a practice before the big game. Submitted photo

Van Denburgh, right, goes one-on-one during a practice before the big game. Submitted photo

The weekend included a lot more than one game of hoops under the lights.

The Special Olympians saw nearly every aspect of the All-Star Weekend from Feb. 15-17, including the Sunday evening game and All-Star Saturday Night which included the slam dunk contest.

“It was cool,” Van Denburgh said about the creative high-fliers in the dunk contest. “I was like, wow. It’s really surreal to see them in real life, instead of on TV.”

Toronto’s Terrence Ross won the dunk contest with a between-the-legs leap over a ball boy.

Van Denburgh met host Nick Cannon along with rapper Drake during the evening.

Both teams helped run a Special Olympics camp with help from NBA All-Stars like Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Van Denburgh helped organize the 40 campers who ran drills, made passes and shot baskets on the Toyota Center concourse Saturday.

The group also helped out at a Houston food shelter. Van Denburgh’s team was in charge of packing boxes with cereal, candy, coffee and rice and helped produce 15,720 meals over three hours. “We had no mistakes,” he said, having experience from packing meals at Feed My Starving Children.

Van Denburgh, right, talks with Oklahoma City Thunder all-star Russel Westbrook, left, while helping run a basketball clinic for Special Olympics Texas.

Van Denburgh, right, talks with Oklahoma City Thunder all-star Russel Westbrook, left, while helping run a basketball clinic for Special Olympics Texas.

To reach Houston, Van Denburgh had to submit a video to the NBA Cares program which included practices and responses to a couple of questions about how basketball has changed his life.

He learned in late January that he would be part of the 2013 All-Star Weekend.

“It was just a really cool thing,” Van Denburgh said. The Minnesota Timberwolves sent him out in style by presenting him with new shoes during a halftime ceremony and gave him a Ricky Rubio autographed basketball.

Van Denburgh was surprised Monday afternoon at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by his family who brought balloons and signs to welcome him home.

“They really surprised me,” he said, thanking his friends and family for the support. “They’ve really supported me and let me have this opportunity.”

Van Denburgh returned to Minnesota in time to catch practice with his Special Olympics basketball team, the Metro Athletics Association Rams. The team is the defending state champs and won a tournament before he left. The Rams will attempt to repeat as state champions at the University of St. Thomas March 23-24. Then it’s on to another basketball tournament and track season begins with another sports camp in June.

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